Estamos Montado En El Burro

Estamos Montados En El Burro*

One Activist’s View Of The Media And The Revolution In Venezuela

*(A Venezuelan expression, loosely meaning “We’re already sitting on the donkey, we might as well keep going down the path.”)

by Pete Tridish, of the Prometheus Radio Project

Prometheus Radio Project and Third World Majority organized a delegation of 20 media activists to visit this year’s World Social Forum in Venezuela. Delegates from Consumers Union, Free Speech TV, Reclaim the Media, The Esperanza Center and many others spanning the movement for communications rights in the United States went on a mission to discover the winning strategies being used in Venezuela. Massive media reforms are underway in Venezuela, and the struggle over control of the media is seen as a frontline issue in the Bolivarian Revolution currently underway.

After the delegation to the World Social Forum ended, Prometheus Radio Project, represented by myself, Mic Mylin and Elizabeth DiNovella, stayed for two weeks to conduct several workshops and build small radio stations.

Mic Mylin demonstrating an antenna, and ANMCLA members preparing to tune. Photos Elizabeth Dinovella, and Jorge Aristimuno

A Unique Situation

Venezuela has a history that sets it apart from much of the rest of Latin America. After its liberation from colonial rule in 1821, Venezuela was primarily ruled by dictators for the next 130 years. On the 23rd of January 1958, the dictatorship was ended and a civilian government took over. From 1958 to 1998, a government was in place that was remarkably similar to the United States- just two major parties that took turns being in power, had virtually indistinguishable agendas, and put in place the typical “reverse-Robin-Hood” policies that robbed the poor and gave to the rich. Despite the limitations of this system, many Venezuelans are very proud and relieved that they had a civilian government in the second half of the 20th century while the rest of Latin America suffered under dictators and death squads.

Another key distinction between Venezuela and the rest of Latin America is that Venezuela is an incredibly rich nation, due to its sizable oil reserves. Venezuela is one of the top ten producers of oil in the world, and was a founding member of OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries). As the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States, Venezuela has historically allowed its oil resources to be exploited by US corporations for relative bargain prices This cozy relationship has led to the formation of an ultra rich elite, and a relatively large middle class in Caracas. Many professionals in Caracas enjoy weekend shopping trips to Miami and live in a manner very similar to the comfortable lives of North Americans in comparable positions. There are enormous shopping malls in Caracas where you can get more or less anything you might be able to buy in a US shopping mall. Venezuela has the most profitable plastic surgery industry in Latin America, and leads the world in winners of the “Miss Universe” and “Miss World” contests. There are over 900 beauty salons in Caracas, and the average Venezuelan spends 20% of their income on expenses related to personal appearance.

However, this prosperity and conspicuous consumption is far from universal. More Venezuelans live on $2/ per day or less. In 1995, 70% of the population lived below the poverty line. Due to over-reliance on the oil sector, the population’s prosperity fluctuates wildly with the price of oil. The oil economy has also undermined other sectors of the economy. Venezuela, despite its beautiful climate and fertile land, imports about a third of its food. It does not make economic sense to be a farmer in Venezuela: Venezuelan farmers can not compete with the subsidized agricultural products of the United States and the lower labor costs in other Latin American countries that lack an oil economy. An enormous number of the poor have moved away from the countryside to Caracas.

But Caracas is surrounded by mountains, and huge barrios (neighborhoods) with millions of people have been constructed on squatted land in the foothills of these towering slopes. Some of the barrios have been there for 50 years and are very sturdy, but many are built on land unsuitable for development or that cannot sustain houses. There are periodic, preventable disasters. Enormous mudslides during heavy rains in 1999 killed tens of thousands in a single day as the buildings came tumbling down the muddy slopes.

A small section of Petare in Caracas, the largest barrio in South America.

After the price of oil plummeted during the 80s, the economy went into a tailspin. The International Monetary Fund offered the government to loan them money to stay afloat, but only if important social programs were cut and the budgets were balanced on the backs of the poor and middle class. As a result of the new policies, there were a series of strikes and demonstrations. The more repressive elements of the military saw their opportunity to “clean house” of radicals and went house to house in a targeted raid, killing over a thousand political targets. After 30 years of relatively benign military presence, civil society was shocked by this massacre (known as the Caracazo) and the political waters shifted.

In 1992, a little known Air Force Colonel named Hugo Chavez was involved in a failed coup attempt against the business-as-usual government and the elements of the military involved in the massacres. After being released from jail 2 years later, Chavez announced he would run for president on a program of ending the inequities between the rich and poor. After a 4-way race that included a former Miss Universe, conservative Irene Saez, Chavez was elected president in 1998.

Chavez Versus The Media

Over the years, many people had promised to improve the lot of the poor, but Chavez started delivering big reforms after he established a new constitution. Cheap food, free health care, recognition of squatter’s rights on land in the barrios, and free homestead land have all been implemented on a wide scale. In late February, 2006, Venezuela announced it would begin distributing a pension to housewives for their traditionally unpaid labor in the home. The monied classes quickly started organizing to protect their privileges. In the vanguard of this movement have been the privately owned TV stations. Typical of the owners is Gustavo Cisneros, a conservative businessman who also owns media outlets throughout Latin America and the United States. Since the owners decided that Chavez’s policies were contrary to their interests, they have shed any pretense of being objective news outlets and operated more like opposition propaganda organs. Daily reports accused Chavez of everything from wife beating to causing global warming. TV Astrologers shows would even weigh in, predicting “blood on the streets” if Chavez stayed in power.

In 2002, the TV stations joined powerful businessmen and military leaders in staging a coup against President Chavez. Chavez was replaced for two days by businessman Pedro Carmona, who quickly abolished the National Assembly, suspended the constitution, and issued arrest warrants for Chavez supporters. In fact the actual seizing of power happened several hours late because a TV remote truck got lost on the way to the announcement by the coup leaders that they were in control. More troublingly, on the day of the coup an opposition politician recorded a fairly precise report of sniper attacks in the streets hours before they actually occurred. A tape of this “dress rehearsal” for the coup was smuggled out of the TV station by a worker, and is now being used as evidence that it was the coup plotters, not the government that initiated the sniper attacks which were used to justify the seizure of power from the Chavez government. So deep was the complicity of the TV stations that the replacement of the elected government could almost be described as a made for TV spectacle. Immediately after the seizure of power, the private TV stations showed only cooking shows and reruns as Chavez’s supporters gathered and helped take back the presidential palace and reinstate him into power.

During the two days of the coup, the State TV and several community media stations were raided and shut down, including CATIA TV, a public access TV station in Caracas which our delegation visited. But others continued broadcasting, and rallied Chavez’s supporters from the barrios to join Chavez loyalists in the military and recapture the government from the opposition. Chavez had mostly ignored community radio until 2002, but after it’s support during the coup, the Venezuelan government became very interested in community radio stations as a way to counter the broadcast monopoly on information held by the private media. The Venezuelan government started the process of legalizing many pirate stations.

Catia TV founder demonstrates community reporting technique on KBOO radio reporter Flora Photo Jonathan Lawson

Venezuela’s New Media Laws.

Venezuela completely rewrote its constitution in 1999, and has been rewriting all of its other laws since then, including its communication law. Venezuela’s legal system derives from Napoleonic law, not English common law. In broad terms, countries that draw from common law need to justify changes to their laws and regulations through evaluations of long histories of precedent- this strengthens the status quo by essentially leaving things as they are until very strong proof is shown for the need for a change. Under Napoleonic based legal systems, laws can be changed drastically with less regard for how things were done in the past.

This has impacted media policy in interesting ways. In United States media history, the government has imposed a different regime of regulations on each new technology. When establishing the rules, the government made certain requirements for fair play among each successive media innovation. In exchange for the exclusive radio licenses or cable franchises, companies had to agree to certain public interest requirements. When the FCC allowed the phone monopoly, they made the phone company promise an open system where anyone could call anyone, and even the poorest or most rural citizens could get phone service even if it was not profitable for the company to provide it. When the FCC gave out radio and TV licenses, the broadcasters had to install emergency alert equipment, make sure that indecent programming was not on the air when children would be likely to watch, and refrain from acting as the mouthpiece of one political party. With cable, companies had to pay a franchise fee to local municipalities for the right to dig up the streets, and provide several channels for government, educational and public access.

Every technology got a different “deal” in which they were required to do certain forms of public service which justified their exclusive right to operate their chunk of the media. In the United States, corporations often whine that the public service burdens on their business are heavier than the burdens of competitors in other media. So for example a cable guy will say “ I can’t compete and make money because I have to pay a franchise fee that the broadcaster does not have to pay.” At the same time, a broadcaster will claim “ I can not compete and make money because the cable guys get to have racier programming without worrying about cursing.” This sort of regulatory argument leads to a typical case of “The grass always looks greener for the other guy, until the whole world goes blind.” It is widely recognized to be a silly situation because the consumer experiences the programming the same way, regardless of how it is delivered.

In Venezuela, because the laws have all been rewritten, the differences in regulation between cable and broadcasting are much smaller. Cable and broadcast stations pay similar fees, have similar indecency restrictions, and are generally not thought of as very different from each other.

In radio, the government formalized different tiers of broadcasting and prioritized them by their commitment to community service. Venezuelans use the term “alternative radio” to describe self-selected groups that operate stations representing musical styles, political groupings, or so-called communities of interest. Some of the alternative radio stations have been legalized but not all. “Community radio”, on the other hand, is a rough equivalent of what is called Public Access in the United States– stations are required to have connection to local grassroots groupings like neighborhood assemblies, and the organizers of the station can not dominate more than 15 % of the airtime. The doors must remain open to community members that would like to participate in the station. There are also restrictions on individual programmers, who can not have more than a fixed percentage of the airtime. Community radio is favored in the regulations because of the social functions that it is required to serve, and because it is more “neutral” in serving all local interests. In their license applications, stations have to describe specific local social problems and outline how they will use their portion of the airwaves to solve them.

Today, there are close to 300 new stations in operation. About 70 of these have received licenses to operate from CONATEL, the Venezuelan broadcast regulators, akin to the FCC. Other applications are in the process of consideration. One of the largest groups representing community and alternative radio in Venezuela is ANMCLA, the National Association of Free and Communitarian and Alternative Media. Roughly 250 stations are members of this federation. The group represents both licensed and unlicensed stations, and these stations stand in solidarity with each other, insisting that all ANMCLA members have the legitimate right to broadcast. ANMCLA describes unlicensed broadcasters as “not-yet-licensed”. ANMCLA played a key role in shaping the new regulations that govern radio, but they are not content with some aspects of the law and remain generally at arms-length from CONATEL. The government regulators have hired ANMCLA on some occasions to conduct workshops and invited their participation on oversight committees, but the bureaucratic style of CONATEL and the grassroots activism of ANMCLA often results in friction between ANMCLA and the communications regulator.

ANMCLA and the Indigenous march against coal mining in Zulia Photo: Erin McCarley

ANMCLA is supportive, but suspicious of the Chavez government as a whole. One member of ANMCLA described its position to our delegation: “We are supportive of the process of change happening now in this country. We have not agreed with every policy or every decision, but we have watched Chavez these years and he has had many opportunities to take the country in the wrong direction and sell out the social movements that brought him to power, but he has not done that.” During the World Social Forum, ANMCLA chose not to participate in the official events, which they considered too connected to the Chavez government to have legitimacy. Instead, they chose to host a march against coal mining with the Indigenous communities from Zulia, who are being displaced from their land by the new mines. The demonstration showed an impressive level of integration between the grassroots movement for community media and indigenous movements.

The Law of Social Responsibility in Media

One important recent development in Venezuela is the new “Law of Social Responsibility in Media” that applies to all licensed broadcasters, including private, state, community and alternative stations. Private media groups have complained internationally that provisions of the law will have a chilling effect on press freedom. They say that this law is evidence of the authoritarian tendencies of President Chavez. Government sources and Chavez supporters claim that the law is actually patterned after US and European laws and simply establishes standards in media similar to other democracies.

Indeed, most of the laws’ provisions sound similar to regulations found in the US. There is a classification system for indecent material, and times when it is allowed to be broadcast, provisions requiring playing the national anthem at sign off time limitations on amount commercials that can air per hour etc. There are also some ideas borrowed from laws in some European countries, such as requirements for 50% of music to be of Venezuelan origin. According to an article in Venezuelanalysis.com, (http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news.php?newsno=18980) there is strong support for this provision, and local musicians are surging in popularity and enjoying a rise in CD sales as a result of increased airplay.

There were other aspects of the law that are new and unique to Venezuela. The law requires a tax on commercial broadcasters of 2% of gross revenues, which goes into a fund for public programming called the Social Responsibility Fund, used for subsidy of non-commercial stations and programming. There are further public service requirements, including 3 hours per day of cultural or educational programming, and a restriction on the number of hours (2 per day) of telenovelas (soap operas) that can be broadcast. Fines for most violations are .5% of the stations annual gross revenues, ensuring that large and small stations equally bear the impact of a fine.

Interestingly, one provision that American broadcasters might find particularly odious regulates “broadcasts (with) messages that show violence as an easy or appropriate solution to human problems or conflicts”. Violent programming, programming with sexual content and programming that glorifies gambling as an alternative to work is restricted to certain times of the day when children are not likely to be watching.

The most complained about provisions are the ones that impose sanctions for incitements to violence or promotion of hate. Private broadcasters are concerned about how these laws could be enforced given the antagonistic relationship between the government and their companies, and the subjective nature of their adjudication. Venezuela already had a law against “insulting members of the government” before Chavez, but in the new penal code a provision was expanded and potential penalties were increased. The government can fine a station; impose a 3 day suspension of broadcasts or with repeated offences cause license revocation. It should be said that incitements to violence can also be a cause for license revocation in the US, and laws against hate speech in media are common throughout just about every country in the developed world except for the United States.

The Law of Social Responsibility had not yet been enforced when we were there. However on February 16th, the first set of enforcement actions were announced mostly having to do with record keeping violations), gambling advertisements and another enforcement for sexual content. No enforcement has been announced in connection with hate speech, incitement or depictions of violence. There is however, one investigation proceeding in connection with a case of a murdered Venezuelan prosecutor, where a judge controversially ordered that news outlets not release certain information of the case to the public during the trial. While Chavez has complained bitterly at his treatment by the private media, his government has made no enforcement actions against any media outlet for criticizing the government or expressing political views. This stands in stark contrast to the 2 day reign of Pedro Carmona, when community and state TV stations were attacked and shut down by police.

A novel part of the Venezuelan system is the Citizen Committees for Social Responsibility. Funded by small grants out of the Social Responsibility Fund which also funds independent production, these committees are self organizing citizens groups of 20 people or more who analyze media and have opportunities to give feedback and make complaints against media companies. Stations must reply to complaints from users groups within 15 days. They can also have standing to file suit in some cases, and 2 delegates representing all of the users committees sit on the “social responsibility council.” This board is drawn partly from government and partly from civil society (child advocacy groups, sports associations, teachers groups, etc.) and help decide on sanctions against stations for infractions and the use of the social responsibility fund.

CONATEL ( the FCC of Venezuela) employees marching against imperialism and war (Photo: Jonathan Lawson, Reclaim the Media)

Prometheus in Venezuela

I’ve talked about the history and policies, at this point I’ll shift gears to give some of my more direct experience as an Amercan visitor to Venezuela. In 8 years as a US media activist, I have never had the opportunity to sit down with the chairman of the American FCC to discuss policy issues- even when we sued them, and ended up helping to derail the new rules on media ownership! However, the director of the Venezuelan media regulation agency CONATEL, Alvin Lezama, and several of his staff greeted our delegation warmly. Like any skilled politician, he dodged some of our tougher questions, especially in connection with the gag order that has been placed in connection with concerns over freedom of the press in connection with the aforementioned murder case. He did answer other tough questions we asked about pending license conflicts in connection with community radio stations with fairly reasonable, detailed answers. He gave us copies of a book produced by CONATEL about the connection between the philosophy of Simon Rodriquez (the most celebrated philosopher of Venezuela and the teacher of Simon Bolivar, who liberated the country from Spanish rule in 1821) There are a lot of beautiful, hilarious drawings of Rodriguez with a boombox, shooting video for a community TV station, dropping science with the youth in bohemian clothing, etcetera! The Venezuelan government is eager to connect the community media movement with the philosophy of the Founding Fathers of Venezuela.

Another issue Conatel Director Alvin Lezama focused on was intellectual property. He spoke strongly about the Venezuelan Government’s commitment to moving away from proprietary software and towards open source based operating systems. The Venezuelan government’s interest in this subject is not just an abstract one, as the results of the Oil strike of 2003. An American technology contractor which is closely connected to the military and the Bush administration (SAIC) ran off with the codes to run the oilrigs, resulting in a shut down of oil production (and much of the country’s economy) that lasted more than 50 days. The Venezuelan government has pledged to never be vulnerable again to a Yanqui software company. All government computers are being transitioned away from proprietary software and operating systems, switching from Microsoft Windows to Linux.

In 2006 during our visit, I attended a speech by President Chavez during the World Social Forum. There was a short skit beforehand performed by puppeteers. Large Coca Cola, McDonalds and Microsoft logos painted on cardboard were terrorizing campesinos, and the campesinos retaliated with machetes and pitchforks and ripped apart all the corporate logos.

Prometheus Workshops

Many sectors in Venezuela have expressed interest in setting up a local industry to produce broadcast equipment. Because of the high import tariffs (40%) on foreign electronics goods (a problem for community radio stations throughout the developing world), there is a high demand and need for learning the craft of mass-producing transmitters, antennas and other broadcast equipment. Prometheus was in demand almost every day that we were there, and we conducted 6 different workshops ranging from a few hours to a few days. While licensed stations get some engineering support, few alternative media groups had the essential tools and familiarity with radio techniques needed to service antennas. Prices for transmitters were very high, especially relative to the Venezuelan average income of $2 per day.

Prometheus participated in three panels about the political aspects of our work, and conducted three technical workshops, ranging from a few hours to three days. Groups that we worked with ranged from Radio Alternativa Caracas, an unlicensed radio station in the center of downtown Caracas, to conducting a session at the brand new Bolivarian University. The station that we built in Caracas was in the barrio La Dolorita, with a group that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities. The organization is connected with the local Bolivarian cultural group, which promotes the arts in the neighborhood.

Everyone was dubious as we began to build the antenna, since it looked like we were building it out of a lot of junk. But when we flipped the switch, even though the power was less than one watt, the signal was able to reach the whole neighborhood due to its prime location at the top of a hill. Many people were able to tune in on their cell phones (many cell phones in Venezuela have built in FM radios), and within a few minutes of turning on the station, we were getting calls on every cell phone and landline in the house. We put the first caller on the air by holding a cell phone up to the microphone and turned up the volume to about the breaking point!

pete tridish tuning a transmitter with ANMCLA radio workshop Photos Elizabeth Dinovella, and Jorge Aristimuno

We were not quite as fortunate in Cumana. We had brought a 40 watt transmitter to build with the group, but I got very sick on the first day. I must not have been thinking straight, because when a key part ended up missing, I made a rash decision to try substituting a similar part. Not similar enough! It blew up all the power transistors. To repair the transmitter I had to bring it home with me to Philly, the land where zener diodes are plentiful. We did, however, leave them with a spare ten watt transmitter that Mic had brought, so all was not lost. And the 40 watt transmitter that the group built will be ready for use as soon as we get the new parts in and ship it. That workshop had about 25 people from different ANMCLA stations around Venezuela and ran for three days, including a lot of radio theory and practice with soldering.

Can Anyone Tell What Is Really Happening In Venezuela?

In Venezuela, the polarization of society is very apparent. In general, the poor believe community media and state TV, and the middle and upper classes believe the privately owned media. As a result, there are completely incompatible versions of recent events and no consensus on the basic facts surrounding them. What I saw in Venezuela definitely gave me the impression that much of the middle class and wealthy opposition is rooted in a desire to protect the traditional privileges. But there is definitely some validity to some opposition concerns. Many Venezuelans are suspicious of a president who emerged from the military, and are concerned about Chavez’s moves to bring military officers into top posts in the civilian government. As virtuous as the new military mission to improve the lot of the poor is, the military culture of command and obedience that the soldiers bring to poverty alleviation is not compatible with civilian democratic behavior. Others express concern that the new constitution upsets the balance of powers between the branches of government, concentrating power in the executive. Finally, many people worry about a cult of personality around Chavez, which would be good in the long run for democratic culture and institutions. It seems that Chavez himself has shown more toleration of dissenting views (with his extremely hands off approach to criticism from the private media) than some of his supporters may have, who have on occasion assaulted reporters from the private media stations.

While much is open to doubt in Venezuela, there can be no doubt that there have been substantive, perceptible benefits to the poor during Chavez’s administration. I saw evidence everywhere I went. While I was teaching a radio workshop, I came down with a bad case of the flu on the afternoon of the first day. My hosts asked if I wanted to see a doctor, but I brushed them off with my typical uninsured American response: “I can’t see a doctor, I don’t have medical insurance …I’ll be ok, I’ll drink lots of water and sleep as much as possible.” By the next day, I had totally lost my voice and had to whisper for the next two days. Finally, on the fourth day my host insisted: “I’ll take you to the doctor, he is my friend.” I imagined that I was in for the sort of experience I’m used to in Philadelphia- a 3 hour wait in an infernal, depressing room full of dozens to hundreds of sick people (some very sick) to see an intake nurse, and another 3 hours before seeing an overworked doctor for a few precious minutes.

I was shocked when I got to the clinic and there were just a few people there in a simple but comfortable building. The doctor was from Cuba, and saw me within a few minutes of my arrival. He was extremely nice and down-to-earth, checked me out and gave me some pills, all for free! I had never gotten such good medical care in my own country, the richest nation in all of the world. I later learned that the clinic doctors will make housecalls, and if you are sick in the middle of the night you can even go knock on the door, because they usually live right behind the clinic! My experience drove home for me that there is no law of nature that handed down the American system– it is just what we have become accustomed to. Chavez has won considerable loyalty from the poor through introducing reforms like this– as long as he keeps it up, the 70% of the country who have been excluded up till now will probably keep on electing him or his successors with similar commitments to the well being of the poor. In media right now, Venezuela is a hot bed of experimentation with new ideas that can democratize freedom of expression. If you get a chance, go see for yourself!

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